Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Works to Shape S. Florida's Elections Next Week
Around the State
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has been one of the leading figures in South Florida politics for three decades now and she continues to shape the region's politics by throwing her support to Republican allies.
Ros-Lehtinen burst onto the scene in 1982 when she was elected to the Florida House where she met and married Dexter Lehtinen, a fellow state representative who jumped over to the GOP from the Democrats right before they got married. Both of them moved on to the Florida Senate before he resigned to become a state attorney.
Winning the seat which had been held by the legendary Claude Pepper in a special election, Ros-Lehtinen moved on to Congress in 1989, becoming the first Latina to ever serve there. Since then, she has easily kept her seat, blowing out challengers year after year. This time out, the Democrats didn’t even bother to field a challenger against her.
Ros-Lehtinen has won national attention from her role in international policy, chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee, supporting Israel and ranking as one of the fiercest critics on Capitol Hill of the Castro regime and other communist governments. Despite focusing on foreign affairs in her time in Washington, Ros-Lehtinen has often waded into domestic issues, including being one of the most vocal Republicans supporting same-sex marriage in Congress -- an odd contrast since she goes right on other social issues, including abortion.
During the quarter century she has served in Congress, Ros-Lehtinen has proven herself to have an eye for talent. Familiar names like Marco Rubio and Rene Garcia, among others, have worked for her as staffers and interns.
Despite her stature in Washington, Ros-Lehtinen has shown no hesitation in getting her hands dirty in local politics. That was seen once again on Wednesday when the congresswoman endorsed Miami-Dade County Commissioner Lynda Bell over challenger Daniella Levine Cava. Bell is expected to have a tough challenge from Levine Cava in Tuesday’s election and Ros-Lehtinen’s last-minute endorsement might help pull her across the finish line as a winner.
Ros-Lehtinen has also had no problem backing Carlos Curbelo to challenge Joe Garcia despite four other Republicans, including former congressional colleague David Rivera, running in the primary. The congresswoman has even cut ads for Curbelo, urging Republican primary voters to support him.
Despite being prominent in Florida politics for three decades, Ros-Lehtinen is in no hurry to anoint a successor. She is only 62 and shows no signs of slowing down. Even as she throws her weight around in next week’s elections, she is set to be a force in Washington and South Florida for some time to come.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.